Leonel Manzano is a lot like a lot of other folks you might find around Austin. He drives a Ford pickup; he runs around Lady Bird Lake; he works out at the YMCA. But that’s probably where the similarities end. You see, Manzano's among the fastest runners in the world in the 1,500-meter run.
At the 2012 Summer Olympics, Manzano — the pride of Marble Falls — came from near the back of the pack on the last lap to finish a half-second behind the gold-medal winner, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria.
“You start thinking about everything you’ve done and everybody that’s home supporting you and your family, it’s just all these thoughts come through you. And then it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s not over. It’s not over. There’s still 400 meters left to go.’ And even though you may be feeling totally out of it, all these thoughts are also motivation.”
Before Manzano’s silver medal, the last time an American medalled in the 1,500-meter was Jim Ryun in 1968. Manzano will be looking to improve on that this summer in Rio. However, Olympic Games are already mired in controversies months before they even start.
The latest controversy, doping, could linger over the games. Russia’s track-and-field team could be banned completely from the Olympics. The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) may even consider a ban on most of the Russian delegation for the Summer Games. An anti-doping investigation by WADA found systemic state-sponsored doping has been going on in Russia for years, and perhaps not just in track events. Tennis star Maria Sharapova has been named to its tennis team despite a two-year doping ban.
Doping isn’t limited to Russia. Eighteen Kenyan runners are serving suspensions that total 55 years.
And while there are no Olympic implications locally to date, Austin is no stranger to doping scandals. The 2014 winner of the Austin Marathon, Kenyan Joseph Mutinda got a three-year ban when he tested positive for a steroid byproduct and admitted using Erythropoietin, or EPO. Just a few months ago, Austin served as a setting in the controversial Al Jazeera documentary where an Indiana pharmacist admitted to supplying star and journeyman athletes with performance enhancers.
There are common types of doping in endurance sports. One artificially increases your red blood cell count. This can be done by taking EPO or even re-infusing blood.
“They take blood out of their body, let their body build back its normal stores of blood over the course of three weeks, and then after that, put back in the blood they had taken out and stored.”
UT Austin Professor Ed Coyle directs the school’s Human Performance Lab. He says, with this procedure, dopers are raising their blood volume 10 to 12 percent above normal.
“More blood means more oxygen carrying capacity. More oxygen delivery to muscle and much faster times.”
There are also peptides. And then there is the steroid – probably the most commonly associated when people think of performance-enhancing substances.
All of these performance-enhancing methods take advantage of chemical processes already at work in the human body. Most are used commonly by doctors in a variety of treatments.
The upside for athletes is a quicker recovery time. They are able to train harder longer, becoming bigger, faster, stronger.
So, why wouldn’t we all want to dope?
We’d all like to perform better, right?
"I don’t think for the average person or even the person that exercises for health that blood doping really produces measurable improvement," Coyle says.
Austin chiropractor Ross Bomben's practice specializes in rehabbing sports injuries. Before moving to Austin, he was an All-American decathlete at the University of California at Berkeley. His Olympic dream ended in 2000 at the U.S. trials. He says, for most in track-and-field the Games of the Olympiad are the be-all and end-of competitive running.
"The tough part about track and field is really nobody cares until the Olympics. That’s the reality. Your big chance, your Wheaties box, doesn’t happen other than the Olympics," he says.
He still runs in the same circles as Austin’s elite athletes – in this case, probably both the literal and figurative sense of the phrase.
“Almost all the people I’ve talked to are adamantly against it, and they all know how much benefit they can have from it," Bomben says. "But they’re ethical or moral guys for the most part, and maybe I just run in an interesting group, but nobody has said, ‘Hey, can you hold these syringes for me?’"
Is Manzano worried about dopers? In a word, no.
“You know it’s there, but you just can’t worry about it, because ultimately it’s like, if that’s all you’re worrying about, that’s all you’re thinking. Ultimately, you got step on to the track and race no matter what," he says.
But, first, he’ll have to make the Olympic team. There are no bonus points for being one of the fastest at that distance over the last eight years, and no automatic position for recent medal winners.
But, he says, “I feel good about it. Everything else has to be taken care of on the track, and that’s it. It’s top three, top three.”
The Olympic track-and-field trials start next week in Eugene, Oregon.